Whose Culture Is It?

There is no document of civilization,” Walter Benjamin maintained, in his most often-quoted line, “that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He was writing—some sixty-five years ago—with particular reference to the spoils of victory carried in a triumphal procession: “They are called cultural treasures,” he said, but they had origins he could not “contemplate without horror.”

Benjamin’s provocation has now become a commonplace. These days, museum curators have grown uneasily self-conscious about the origins of such cultural treasures, especially those that are archaeological in nature or that come from the global south. A former curator of the Getty Museum is now on trial in Rome, charged with illegally removing objects from Italy, while Italian authorities are negotiating about the status of other objects from both the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum. Greece is formally suing the Getty for the recovery of four objects. The government of Peru has recently demanded that Yale University return five thousand artifacts that were taken from Machu Picchu in the early nineteen-hundreds—and all these developments are just from the past several months. The great international collectors and curators, once celebrated for their perceptiveness and perseverance, are now regularly deplored as traffickers in, or receivers of, stolen goods. Our great museums, once seen as redoubts of cultural appreciation, are now suspected strongrooms of plunder and pillage.

And the history of plunder—the barbarism beneath the civility—is often real enough, as I’m reminded whenever I visit my hometown in the Asante region of Ghana. In the nineteenth century, the kings of Asante—like kings everywhere—enhanced their glory by gathering objects from all around their kingdom and around the world. When the British general Sir Garnet Wolseley traveled to West Africa and destroyed the Asante capital, Kumasi, in a “punitive expedition” in 1874, he authorized the looting of the palace of King Kofi Karikari, which included an extraordinary treasury of art and artifacts. A couple of decades later, Major Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (yes, the founder of the Boy Scouts) was dispatched once more to Kumasi, this time to demand that the new king, Prempeh, submit to British rule. Baden-Powell described this mission in his book, The Downfall of Prempeh: A Diary of Life with the Native Levy in Ashanti, 1895–96.

Once the King and his Queen Mother had made their submission, the British troops entered the palace, and, as Baden-Powell put it, “the work of collecting valuables and property was proceeded with.” He continued:

There could be no more interesting, no more tempting work than this. To poke about in a barbarian king’s palace, whose wealth has been reported very great, was enough to make it so. Perhaps one of the most striking features about it was that the work of collecting the treasures was entrusted to a company of British soldiers, and that it was done most honestly and well, without a single case of looting. Here was a man with an armful …

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